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Amb. Kenton Keith: “Vital importance of person to person engagement”

Flags in State Department lobby


(14 May 2016) Remarks by Amb. Kenton W. Keith on receiving the DACOR Foreign Service Cup at Foreign Affairs Day, 6 May 2016, U.S. Department of State. Reprinted with permission.

Thank you Amb. Ewing,  Mr. Director General, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen:

I am very grateful to have my name included among those on this prestigious cup.  I would like to accept on behalf of the many who toiled in the vineyards of public diplomacy as members of the US Information Agency, and those who do so today within the Department  of State.

When USIA was amalgamated into the Department, the overwhelming concern was the protection of the function in a Department that was not accustomed to placing a high priority on Public Diplomacy.

Some worried that if the sacred budget for exchange programs and cultural programming were to be bundled in the same resource competition as traditional State Department requirements, it would be the public diplomacy requirements that would suffer.  Others feared that the best of the public diplomacy officers would eventually gravitate to faster career tracks in the political or economic cones.

Many foresaw that the public diplomacy function would diminish in effectiveness with the blending of one agency – which emphasized engagement with publics – with another agency which emphasized private engagement with governments.

From a broader perspective, the end of the cold war seemed to signal a moment in history when competition against a single hegemonic adversary was at an end, and the need for a dedicated public diplomacy agency was also at an end.  However, we now realize that the cold war evolved into new, more complex and frustrating challenges around the world, and America’s vision has come under ever-increasing challenges.

In recent years I have had the opportunity to lead inspections of various missions in Europe and Latin America, and I have been positively impressed with the quality of the Public Diplomacy officers I have encountered.  They are bright, hard-working and dedicated.

I have also found that officers in other cones have better learned to employ public diplomacy tools than was the case in my 32 years of active service.  This is good news indeed.  But it is also true that the culture of public diplomacy professionals that was bred and cultivated in USIA has suffered.

I confess that I am among the dinosaurs who have been left behind in the new battlefield of social media.  Yet I recognize its importance, and it is the impressive new colleagues in diplomatic service who will have to take up this challenge.  Still, I sincerely hope that we will never lose sight of the vital importance of person to person engagement.  Or as Edward R. Murrow put it, “the final three feet.”

Again, I am truly honored to be awarded the Foreign Service Cup.  I thank my friend and colleague Tom Homan for nominating me, and the DACOR committee that selected me for the award.

Thank you.
Amb. Kenton Keith

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